In this first journal about Leader and Hero classes we start out by discussing the creation of the leader and hero customizer and assets in Age of Wonders III. My name is Nils Ruisch and I’m a 3D character artist.
I was tasked to co-design and create the hero assets for Age of Wonders 3. In the previous games of the series, the heroes and leaders have always been portrayed with the use of 2D images. Heroes like Yaka, Tempest and Artica all look stylized, characteristic and are easy to recognize. However, since the Age of Wonders series took the step from 2D to 3D it was time for the heroes to make this transition as well. It was my task to realize the 3D art part of this.
We know there are many fans of the original 2D portraits, yet we decided to go for 3D. Let me explain why we made the decision to go for 3D:
- Style Consistency: Stylistically the characters are more rooted in the same style of the rest of the game world. Although the heroes and leaders were cool, there was quite some deviation within the characters resulting from different artists working on them and some having 3D models (or even dev team members) as a base.
- Customization: Characters can be now be designed by players, reflecting player race and class, their player colors, and personality of the character they want to (role) play.
- Variation and Modularity: Once a set of components has been created a large amount of leader variations can be built along with attachable items, even mounts. Especially the library of premade leaders should be larger than before. (I think the campaign alone features 40 leader characters)
- Reuse Throughout the game: The same 3D character model can be used to display a leader or hero in the diplomacy screens, on the game maps and as rendered as smaller interface icons. The major win here is that the hero can be posed, animated and lighted differently in each of these situations.
- Animation; characters can animate in the in the interface, showing their personality or like or dislike of you during diplomatic interaction.
My task was to recreate the personality of the original characters in 3D. This means we put an emphasis on custom sculpted heads filled with personality instead of relying on deformed shapes. Also we wanted to ensure the different races look distinct, with varying body proportions, tails, head types, etc. At all costs, we wanted to avoid re-skinned humans, as seen in some other games.
Another call we made early on was to make the classes and the player’s customization choices stand out, and not blur the lines by rendering equip-able clothes. Imagine designing a cool sorcerer, but equipping an armor set early on in the game. Suddenly you look like a warlord and your character becomes unrecognizable to you and your rivals. This is not something we would want. Also the scope of cool magical items is not limited because of creating 3D variants.
The Warlord, Theocrat, Sorcerer, Arch Druid, Dreadnought and Rogue classes have their unique choice of armor sets. These sets are then wrapped over the various racial bodies in the game and get colored according to main and secondary colors you choose. By choosing a class, race and gender the player will define the core visuals of his or her hero. Next to choosing between variations on the class armor, the looks of the hero can then be tweaked by adjusting their head and decorations (more on this later when we discuss the interface).
Anatomy of a hero
The hero heads are made by creating base heads that hold the major forms for each race. Special care is given to place edge loops in such a way that the heads can easily be deformed. To texture the heads a series of 3 UV sets would be created. The first UV set is used to assign a unique texture for each gender and race. A few of these textures are made to create diverse variations. Each base head would then be manually altered in various ways to create head shapes with personality.
The second and third UV sets are used to draw eyebrows and additional details onto the skin. These textures are shared over all the races in game, allowing us to add large amount of variation on the heroes by adding all kinds of eyebrows, scars, war paint, tattoos and burn marks.
As I mentioned above, it was key to present different body types for each hero. We began the process by up-rezzing the base racial unit figures. Note how the proportions of each race vary vastly in shape. We then added details to skin texture and event hands.
The Class Outfits
During the creation process of hero outfits the concept artists at Triumph Studios deliver an armor design. Using this design the armor is blocked out in 3D, sculpted and detailed in Zbrush. The armors are set up in a way that makes it possible to easily add armor variations. After creating a game resolution mesh, the armors are unwrapped and textured. The resulting asset is then skinned to the rig that drives our heroes. After skinning, the outfits are wrapped around the racial bodies along with their male/female variants.
One of the most difficult objects to visualize in 3D is hair. Because of the distinctive way hair reacts to light and the restrictions we had to work with in our engine we have had to use a lot of tricks to make the hair look as good as we can. Right now we use several meshes with different materials to both shade the hair correctly and still make the edges look ‘fluffy’. The fun thing about the hero customizer is that we can share hair along all the races with only little effort. Some of the most awesome combinations where discovered when we ported hair from one race onto the other.
After some hefty internal debate we also did decide on not allowing beards on elves, but we do allow facial hair on female dwarves! We’re not sure if it makes these ladies more awesome, cuter or both.
Each hero has a set of eyes that can be adjusted. A wide variety of variations, ranging from standard green eyes, to smoldering cinders to demon eyes, is available. Next to these each hero has an accessory slot. The player will be able to don his hero with crowns, jewelry, bandanas or a monocle.
Animation and poses
Leaders and heroes feature an animation set which can be chosen to match its personality, ranging from fierce and charming to enigmatic. Every hero is Age of Wonders 3 uses the same rig (skeletal setup, along with controls) to drive its animations. While this design choice did make it harder to derivate in proportions between races, it does allow us to make all the cool animation sets available to all races and classes. We can now present a nice variety of animation-sets the player can choose for his or her hero.
While it would make sense for an Orc Animist to act very fierce, the player can choose to play a more thoughtful Orc. This is reflected by the chosen pose animation. When you also set the scenery your hero is placed in, you can drastically alter the way your hero is perceived.
In a following Journal you’ll see how everything comes together in the customization interface!
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